Thursday, 23 September 2021

France (Bruno Dumont, 2021)

Some months ahead of the autumn 2019 theatrical release of Bruno Dumont's Joan of Arc, the director declared that his next project, On a Half Clear Morning, would star Léa Seydoux and Benoît Magimel.  Obviously, much has happened in the world since that announcement was made, and while Seydoux remains at the heart of Dumont's latest, both the film's original title and male lead were jettisoned along the way; the movie now carries the somewhat inferior title of France, while Magimel has been replaced by Benjamin Biolay.  In case you've somehow managed to avoid the news, Seydoux has seen another of her films fall victim to pandemic-induced delays; by this time next week, we should know whether the 25th entry in the James Bond series has been worth the wait—or if it's much like the previous 24.  With her casting in France, Seydoux joins the handful of big-name stars who have topped the bill in a Bruno Dumont film; while Dumont's previous ten feature films (and two miniseries) have largely featured non-professional performers drawn from his native Flanders, he has diverged from this tradition on a few select occasions—most notably in his work with Juliette Binoche and Fabrice Luchini, both of whom have two appearances for Dumont in their sparkling filmographies.  

As France begins, Seydoux's eponymous news anchor is attending a press conference given by French president Emmanuel Macron, while her producer Lou (Blanche Gardin) cheerfully mugs away in the hope that these antics will tickle France (spoiler: they do).  This opening quickly establishes France's lofty status: she's a very big deal in the world of journalism, and even Macron knows her name.  There are some awful chroma key effects here, and it is doubtful that many will be convinced that Seydoux and Gardin are in the same room as Macron.  As it transpires, this isn't the last example of terrible greenscreen to feature in France, and the penny soon drops that known perfectionist Dumont is deliberately employing sub-par process shots, presumably in order to illustrate how so much that is fake is assumed to be real.  For France is about how news is presented, and we witness the title character's efforts to stage situations so that they make for the best TV—irrespective of whether she's reporting on migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean or the plight of Tuareg rebels.  As someone who manipulates stories that are subsequently broadcast as straight reportage, France is clearly not viewed with any sympathy by Dumont, and this same disdain extends to those who eagerly lap up crass journalism.  Here, such consumers are symbolised by the gaggle of adoring fans who continually tail France in the hope of a selfie or an autograph; while France usually obliges with such requests, she's quick to mock her followers once they're out of earshot. 

Although much of the film focuses on France's professional life, we do get to see both her opulent apartment and her family: husband Fred (Biolay) is a novelist, and although he's someone who has enjoyed some success in the creative arts, he's much less famous than his wife.  Fred and France have a young son, Joseph (Gaëtan Amiel), and it is while on the school run one morning that a distracted France is involved in a minor collision with Baptiste (Jawad Zemmar), a young man on a moped.  France makes a real effort to befriend and compensate Baptiste and his family, and something seems to have shifted in the presenter's demeanour; she decides to take some time out from her glittering career, and checks into an exclusive Alpine retreat.  There, France meets fellow guest Charles (Emanuele Arioli), and it is an indiscretion with this seemingly charming young man that will prove to be very costly for her.  Having engineered countless news reports of her own, France now finds herself at the centre of a contrived scandal, and the outlook is bleak; live by the sword, die by the sword, etc.  Yet even worse is to come for France, and a queasy, showstopping scene slyly illustrates the ghoulish sensationalism so prevalent in bottom-rung news reporting. 

While it may not be particularly accurate to describe France's title character as a straw target, there's a seeming obviousness to the film that will initially wrongfoot viewers accustomed to Dumont's work; it all feels a bit on the nose.  Yet as the film progresses, it becomes apparent that there's something else at work behind the superficial, garden-variety swipe at the media; France is used to both playing to the camera and crying on demand, but as the post-accident version of her becomes more prone to moments of introspection, her tears appear to be genuine.  Not for the first time in a Dumont film, the director films his star in striking close-up as they look skyward; while this moment explicitly recalls Joan of Arc, it also has much in common with the closing scene of Dumont's very first feature film, The Life of Jesus, in which the main character stared at the heavens with a newfound awareness.  Given all that's preceded this shot, it seems almost unthinkable that France might entertain the notion that there's something more important than herself, yet, although this isn't what could be described as a Damascene conversion, it appears that something inside France has changed for good.

Seydoux, clearly aware that she's playing a caricature for much of France's lengthy running time, is good value in her role, and her presence no doubt contributed to the wide distribution the film enjoyed on its domestic release in late August.  Biolay isn't given a great deal to do—although he is involved in one huge scene—and largely appears to be channelling his part in On a Magical Night.  As France progresses, it becomes increasingly Dumontian, and Jawad Zemmar gives the sort of performance so typical of non-professionals in the director's films—as does Fabian Fenet, who was so good in his substantial role in Joan of Arc.  Fenet has a smaller part this time around, yet he features in a pivotal scene, and his presence—alongside Léa Seydoux and Blanche Gardin, no less—provides a welcome reminder of how adept Dumont is when it comes to getting a tune out of these untutored actors.  With much of France set against the backdrop of the big city, there's a welcome change of scenery in the final reel as Dumont moves the action to the Opal Coast he knows so well, and it is here that we experience the film's most moving scene.  For this brief stretch, Dumont is both literally and figuratively on home ground, and as France takes in the windswept landscape, she states simply: "It's beautiful here".  Indeed.

Darren Arnold

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

London Film Festival 2021: Programme Launch

The 65th BFI London Film Festival (LFF) in partnership with American Express today announced the full 2021 programme line-up that will be presented both in cinemas and virtually, incorporating some of the most popular elements of the successful 2020 edition into the full large scale Festival model. Over twelve days from 6 – 17 October, flagship venue BFI Southbank and the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, the LFF Gala venue for 2021, will make London’s South Bank one of two London hub’s at the heart of the film festival experience. Films will also screen in a number of cinemas in London’s West End, with a selection of films at 10 venues in cities and towns across the UK. Audiences will enjoy a rich and varied programme of fiction, documentary, animation, artists’ moving image, short film, restored classics from the world’s archives as well as programmes of exciting international works made in immersive and episodic forms. The Festival will also be accessible online to audiences across the whole of the UK with a specially selected programme of feature and short films available on BFI Player, with online short films and online events free to access. The LFF Expanded programme of Immersive Art and XR will have a large physical exhibition at 26 Leake Street and the National Theatre and also be available UK-wide and internationally via bespoke virtual exhibition space, The Expanse.

The LFF is one of Britain’s leading cinema events and one of the world’s most important film festivals and the programme offers audiences the chance to be the first to see some of the most anticipated new films from around the globe, including a host of new works destined to be major awards contenders. The LFF competitive sections will return recognising remarkable creative filmmaking achievements, and be presented at BFI Southbank. The winners will be selected by a soon-to-be announced jury across four categories: Official Competition, First Feature, Documentary and Short Film and The LFF Audience Award, introduced in 2021, with Festival-goers voting for their favourite film of the Festival. The winner of the IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Bursary Award in association with BFI will also be announced at the virtual Awards Ceremony. 

Presented in partnership with the National Theatre, LFF Expanded will return in 2021 and will feature work from artists and creative teams working in immersive media including virtual, augmented and mixed reality from across the UK and internationally. With the full programme being announced later in the week, the strand will showcase vibrant and daring new work which will be exhibited both physically and virtually to audiences in the UK and globally via the virtual exhibition space, The Expanse. 

The Festival includes many ways audiences can engage with the LFF for free, including an international programme of short films featuring established and breakthrough film talents, Screen Talks with major filmmakers and actors and online Q&As across the Festival. The LFF Expanded strand of Immersive Art and XR will also be free to access both virtually and in-person at LFF Expanded at 26 Leake Street and LFF Expanded at the National Theatre and Rambert for the duration of the Festival.

Source: BFI

Image: Diaphana

Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Titane (Julia Ducournau, 2021)

Back in 2016, filmmaker Julia Ducournau's first feature Raw gained much attention, and in the half-decade since its release it has steadily built up a strong cult following.  A grim tale of cannibalism that tipped its blood-drenched hat in the direction of body horror maestro David Cronenberg, Raw was fairly strong—ahem—meat, and a quite striking debut.  Having made quite a splash with her first film, Ducournau had many eyes on her as she prepared her keenly-anticipated follow-up, which was preceded by a most cryptic synopsis: "Following a series of unexplained crimes, a father is reunited with the son who disappeared ten years ago. Titane: A metal highly resistant to heat and corrosion, with high tensile strength alloys, often used in medical prostheses due to its pronounced biocompatibility".  While I don't think anyone learned a great deal from that logline—except, perhaps, that titane is French for titanium—it certainly managed to create a fine sense of mystery for a film that held on to its secrets right up until it premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

Of course, as many will now know, Titane did more than just premiere at Cannes: it scooped the top prize—the Palme d'Or—and in the process became the talk of the festival; anyone fretting (or hoping) that Ducournau would stumble with her second feature can now safely turn their attention elsewhere.  While at least some of Julia Ducournau's concerns haven't really shifted on from Raw, Titane is a superior film in almost every way.  Typically, the Palme d'Or attaches a heavy weight of expectation to its winner, but Titane effortlessly lives up to its tag as the film of the most recent edition of the festival; crucially, the film has considerable replay value, and in terms of content it is some way from being as outré as the headlines have suggested.  Certainly, the film is a fairly wild ride when compared to most of the summer offerings it has recently shared the multiplex with—Titane's general release serving to highlight it as a relatively shocking title, whereas the film would have come under far less scrutiny had its distribution been limited to the arthouse circuit— but it is by no means as transgressive as the hyperbole might have you believe. 

That said, Titane isn't exactly your run-of-the-mill tale, although its automobile-heavy opening stretch may mislead those who, having bought a ticket for F9, somehow find themselves in the wrong auditorium.  Titane begins with a young girl distracting her father as he's driving along, which quite predictably results in an accident; we fast forward some years to discover that the prominently-scarred girl has grown into a woman who dances for a living.  The woman in question, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), is shown performing an exotic routine on the bonnet of a muscle car at a motor show frequented by leering young men.  See what I mean about potential confusion with F9?  Once she's finished her shift, Alexia receives an unwelcome approach from one of the show's sweaty, insistent attendees, and this ignites a gruesome murder spree.  Now on the run, Alexia decides to avoid detection by transforming her appearance in a bid to pass off as Adrien, a boy who's been missing for a decade.  Alexia cuts her hair and straps down her breasts, with both of these moves registering as merely uncomfortable, but she also decides that her nose isn't quite right; now, this part will make you wince.  Oh, and did I mention that Alexia has recently fallen pregnant?  And that the father just happens to be a car?

With the baby bump now concealed and her makeover complete, the impostor presents herself to Adrien's father, fire chief Vincent (Vincent Lindon), who appears to be the only one to overlook Alexia's hopelessly unconvincing turn as a male impersonator; the careworn Vincent, whose attempts to transform his own body involve painful-looking steroid injections, is so overjoyed by this reunion that it seems he just can't, or rather won't, see what the rest of us can see.  Lindon, as always, is terrific, while newcomer Rousselle delivers a superb performance—and she really has to, in order to keep up with her veteran co-star.  These two performers make it easy for the viewer to buy into this knowingly preposterous setup, which is propelled along by both Jim Williams' excellent score and tracks from The Zombies, Future Islands and The Kills.  With Titane, Julia Ducournau has served up a slice of audacious, supremely confident filmmaking; buckle up and let it take you where it will.

Darren Arnold

Images: Diaphana

Wednesday, 18 August 2021

Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven, 2021)

Believe it or not, half a century has now passed since the release of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven's first feature film, Wat zien ik!? (aka Business is Business).  In the years since, Verhoeven has shocked audiences both in Europe (Spetters, De vierde man) and across the pond (Robocop, Basic Instinct), all the while cementing a formidable reputation as an enfant terrible with major box-office clout.  As time has gone on, Verhoeven has slowed down—perhaps understandably, given that he's now 83 years old—and significant gaps have appeared between his projects; the Dutch-language Zwartboek was his first film in six years, and a full decade would pass between its 2006 release and his return to cinemas with Elle.  While his new film, Benedetta, has appeared a mere five years on from Elle, you do wonder when Verhoeven might decide to call it a day.  It will be a pity when he does as, ever since the mid-1980s, the release of a new Paul Verhoeven film has always been something of an event, and neither his reduced output nor his return to Europe from Hollywood—it is now over 20 years since his last English-language effort, Hollow Man—has impacted on the anticipation that precedes a new Verhoeven movie.

Benedetta premiered in competition for the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and while it didn't win—Titane, which will be reviewed here shortly, scooped the main prize—the film nonetheless enjoyed a high-profile outing at the first post-COVID edition of the festival.  As is almost always the case with Verhoeven's films, Benedetta is a work that sets out to ruffle more than a few feathers, yet it falls some way short of the transgressiveness of many of the director's prior films, including its immediate predecessor, the enjoyably trashy Elle.  The success of the controversial, highly successful Elle owed much to the committed performance of Isabelle Huppert, who received an Oscar nomination for her electrifying turn; I fully expected Huppert to turn up in Benedetta, and I can only speculate that the role filled by the excellent Charlotte Rampling was originally penned with Huppert in mind.  Given that Huppert played a similar part in Guillaume Nicloux's 2013 adaptation of Diderot's The Nun, perhaps it wouldn't have been the best idea for her to be cast here, if indeed she was offered the role; plus, it's always good to see Rampling at work.

Benedetta is adapted from Judith Brown's book Immodest Acts, and the title character is played one of Isabelle Huppert's Elle co-stars: the terrific Belgian actress Virginie Efira, who can consider herself very unlucky not to have been among the winners when Albert Dupontel's superb Bye Bye Morons netted a glut of César awards earlier this year.  In Benedetta, Efira's nun has been in a convent since the age of eight, and during her time there she's claimed to have been on the business end of several miraculous happenings—such as visions of Jesus and the acquisition of stigmata.  All of this is viewed with some scepticism by Rampling's stern abbess, whose demeanour grows yet more severe upon the arrival of a new charge in the form of Bartolomea (Efira's fellow Belgian Daphné Patakia), a rebellious type who wastes little time in entering into a romantic relationship with Benedetta.  On Bartolomea's frantic introduction—she's trying to escape her abusive family—the abbess points out that the convent isn't a charity, and asks the desperate girl if she has money; this frank discussion brilliantly illustrates how quick God's earthly ambassadors can be to move the goalposts when the time comes to help those in need.  1-0 to Verhoeven.

With Benedetta, Paul Verhoeven has set out his stall somewhere between Jacques Rivette's stately La Religieuse and Ken Russell's scabrous The Devils, yet the end product serves up neither the emotional point of the former nor the biting critique of the latter; furthermore, Verhoeven's film doesn't give the viewer much of an opportunity to invest in its characters, despite the sterling efforts of both Efira and Rampling.  And in spite of its best efforts to offend, Benedetta feels an oddly tame, muted affair—compared to 30 years ago, the bar has been raised considerably vis-à-vis what is considered to be outré, and Verhoeven is doing little more than treading water here as he rifles through the index cards of his past successes; in all honesty, it's quite disappointing to discover that this director's attempt at nunsploitation has resulted in one of the subgenre's milder entries.  It all feels a bit reheated, and the casting of Lambert Wilson and Olivier Rabourdin only serves to recall their work in Of Gods and Men—a much more affecting tale of monastic life.  Still, for all that, Benedetta generally works as lurid, pulpy fun, which is pretty much what we all want and expect from a Paul Verhoeven film.  You won't change him now.

Darren Arnold

Image: Pathé

Wednesday, 4 August 2021

Brickbats at Fifty: The Devils Hits the Half-Century

Ken Russell in 1971
A couple of years ago, I wrote a little something on this site concerning the book I'd written about Ken Russell's The Devils—but hey, that's editors' perks for you, such as they are.  Anyway, it is now a full 50 years since the film was first released in cinemas, and to mark this occasion the BBC has published a fine article by author Adam Scovell.  Adam got in touch with me when he was putting the article together, so you may well find one or two quotes of mine in there—but don't let that put you off from reading this excellent piece.  You can view the article here.

Monday, 19 July 2021

Mothers' Instinct (Olivier Masset-Depasse, 2018)

Mothers' Instinct gives Belgian actress Veerle Baetens a great opportunity to flex her acting muscles; the Brasschaat native has previously impressed with strong turns in the likes of Robin Pront's The Ardennes and Felix van Groeningen's The Broken Circle Breakdown, with her performance in the latter receiving wide acclaim while netting several Best Actress awards from film festivals around the world.  These three films provide evidence of Baetens' considerable range as a performer, and the most recent of these titles, the 1960s-set Mothers' Instinct, is a sly, clever work, one in which the actress appears to be having a great deal of fun as she plays a character who keeps us guessing all along; there's a great game going on between Baetens and her co-star Anne Coesens, as both play equally inscrutable characters in this mischievous, simmering thriller. 

Baetens' Alice and Coesens' Celine live next door to one another and are on very good terms, yet even this close friendship is eclipsed by that of their two little boys, who spend a great deal of time together; the film isn't that old before Celine's son falls to his death from an upstairs window, and it is from this tragedy that the film's setup clicks into place: Alice feels that Celine is tacitly blaming her for what happened.  While Alice was the sole witness to the accident but didn't have enough time to alter the terrible course of events, she was in no way responsible for the child's death; but whether it's a form of survivor's guilt or something else, Alice is uneasy around Celine, and even suspects that the bereaved mother is consumed by a jealousy that will drive her to take revenge on those on the other side of the wall.  But is any of this real, or simply a state of mind on the part of Alice?  Celine certainly seems very fond of Alice's son, but the boy's jittery mother just can't take this kindness at face value. 

Based on a novel by Belgian author Barbara Abel, Mothers' Instinct is a taut, imaginative work, one which comes to the boil nicely as all the passive-aggressiveness eventually gives way to something more overtly hostile.  While many have likened the film to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, it actually feels more closely related to Claude Chabrol's thrillers of the 60s—although, given that Chabrol was known as the "French Hitchcock", perhaps it doesn't really matter which, if either, of these masters you choose to reference.  The decision to set the film in the 1960s means that we're treated to an immaculate recreation of the decade's styles and fashions, all wrapped up in a sumptuous colour palette; you strongly suspect that Mothers' Instinct wouldn't be quite as much fun without these sets and costumes, given that the production design is as big a star as either of the excellent leading ladies.

While Veerle Baetens' performance may be the more eye-catching, Anne Coesens matches her co-star every step of the way, and there's a lot of nuance in her portrayal of the grief-stricken Celine.  The classy all-Belgian affair that is Mothers' Instinct seems a rather unlikely work from Olivier Masset-Depasse, a filmmaker previously best known for 2010's Dardennes-esque Illegal, but it's always nice to see a bit of versatility behind the camera as well as from stars like Coesens and Baetens; Masset-Depasse is actually married to the former, who has been an ever-present in her husband's theatrical features, which date back to 2006's Cages.  While he hasn't made too many films, Mother's Instinct proves that Masset-Depasse continues to grow as a filmmaker, and it will be worth keeping an eye on his next career move.    

Darren Arnold

Images: Haut et Court

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Babi Yar. Context (Sergei Loznitsa, 2021)

Based entirely on archive footage, Babi Yar. Context reconstructs the events leading up to the massacre of 33,771 Jews in German occupied Kiev in September 1941, and the aftermath of the tragedy. “Just as other Holocaust crimes, the tragedy of Babi Yar is almost devoid of authentic visual representation - Nazi authorities banned photo and film cameras from the places of mass executions. However, it is possible to reconstruct its historical context through archive footage, documenting the years of German occupation of Ukraine. My aim is to plunge the spectator into the atmosphere of the time”, comments Loznitsa.

Babi Yar. Context is Loznitsa’s 7th film presented in the Official Selection of the Festival de Cannes. “I’m deeply grateful to Thierry Fremaux for his support and appreciation of my work! It’s a great honour and a great pleasure to be in Cannes again and, most importantly, it’s an opportunity to share this urgently relevant story. Babi Yar. Context is not a film about our past, it’s about our present and, possibly, about our future”, says Sergei Loznitsa. The film is produced by Atoms & Void with the support of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Foundation, and will be screened in the Séance Speciale section of the Festival.

Source/images: The PR Factory